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Solving a Virtual Networking Challenge

remo

By: Melanie Hudson | Dec 18, 2020

As so many meetings are switching from in-person to virtual formats during the pandemic, I would like to share a challenge that my organization, the National Association of Federal Retirees, encountered and how we resolved the logistical puzzle.

Every year at our annual meeting, we must hold elections for four or five positions on the board of directors. Years ago, we were asked to let each candidate make a live speech during the annual meeting but considering this could take several hours in an already jam-packed agenda, we sought other ways to help the attendees feel knowledgeable about the nominees before the vote. In advance, the candidates submit biographical summaries, and they record 10-minute videos in which they answer a series of questions to highlight their background and views on governing the association.

Another element that we introduced was a Meet the Candidates networking reception that usually takes place on the first afternoon of the in-person meeting, about three days before the actual elections. This is a casual, ninety-minute event with limited refreshments and no simultaneous interpretation. The candidates are each positioned at their own small table, spaced evenly around a meeting room. The almost 100 electors are invited to circulate amongst the tables to learn more about the dozen or so candidates. This gives everyone a chance to meet face-to-face and get to know each other better.

But how could we hold this reception virtually? Zoom breakout rooms are too rigid; they do not let participants choose where to go and when to leave. Could we set up a separate Zoom meeting for each of the 13 candidates to host and invite the electors to visit each one as they pleased? That seemed like a logistical nightmare that no one would attend!

Fortunately, Disa-marie Cameron, our account manager at FMAV, put me in touch with Kimberly Beaune, CMP, CSEP, owner of Connect Event Hub (CEH), a virtual event venue that operates on the Remo platform. Along with her colleague, Ashley Groves, virtual event manager, Beaune offered a solution that ticked all our boxes, and then some. Connect Event Hub can host virtual meetings for 30 to 800 people, where participants can take a seat at tables of 6 or 8 in a large “hall” and they are able to switch tables at any time. Assuming everyone has their cameras and microphones turned on, you can see and speak with everyone seated at your current table.

remo

For our event, held on November 16, we chose a virtual hall with 15 tables which was just enough for our 13 candidates, plus an English Help Desk and a French version we called “Soutien technique”. CEH staffed these desks and delivered one-on-one help in both official languages to attendees who experienced technical difficulties. With members from one coast of Canada to another, we scheduled the event in the early afternoon, Ottawa time, so it would not inconvenience those in other time zones. CEH held a 30-minute orientation for the candidates just before the main event, to make sure they were comfortable with the format.

Customized registration webpage

CEH provided an on-line registration system, for this activity, including a website customized with our logo and other information. The company provided reports on the number of registrations and actual attendance, including login and logout times for each participant during the two-hour event.

Volunteers engaging at the Meet the Candidates Virtually session

We had some apprehension because our members are, by definition, retirees without employer-provided computer systems, high-speed Internet and IT support. The majority are in their 70s and many admit to being technologically challenged. CEH prepared a customized one-page “Know Before You Go” guide that explained the equipment required to connect. Unfortunately, the platform is not currently optimized for tablets or mobile devices and it does not work in MS Edge or Explorer. We had some challenges making the user interface fully bilingual for our Francophone members. But overall, the results of our post-event survey show that two-thirds of the respondents felt the session enabled them to make more informed voting decisions.

Volunteers from the National Association of Federal Retirees getting to know each other better

The cost to use the Connect Event Hub platform is very reasonable. There are several features that we did not use, such as virtual whiteboards at each table, sponsor branding, social media connections, a chat function, and a separate stage where presenters can speak to all attendees at once. I hope that if we must resort to a virtual Meet the Candidates again in 2021, the platform will be even more evolved, and our members can benefit from some extra face-to-face time. The only drawback? As one member wrote: “It sucks that I had to provide my own wine and cheese!”

Article written by: Melanie Hudson, National Association of Federal Retirees
Article edited by Cynthia Beaudin, Canada Foundation for Innovation

 

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Melanie Hudson

 
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